Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13″ features Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon trapped on the spacecraft, working with NASA’s mission control in Houston, Texas to find a way to get safely home after mechancial failure puts their lives in jeopardy. Scary stuff, right? Now, take away the ability to talk to NASA. Remove the spaceship. Add a field of satellite debris that destroys everything in its path. Drop two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) into the middle of that, only they’re also hurtling through space, barely able to control their direction, let alone deteriorating oxygen levels.

The result is “Gravity,” a film so thrilling and suspenseful it makes “Apollo 13″ look like a family trip to Disney.

“Gravity” is not only a modern masterpiece. It’s the best of everything present-day filmmakers have at their disposal, especially from a special effects stance. Space films before “Gravity” had to use a Vomit Comet, a plane that dives for 30 seconds creating weightlessness, to film zero gravity scenes. “Gravity” eschews that for more modern technology, allowing for long, beautiful takes that capture the isolation of outer space. Most science fiction films touch on how dangerous space is, but “Gravity” embraces it, resulting in probably the most authentic space experience there is next to actually going up there.

Clooney plays, well, an astronaut version of George Clooney, but “Gravity” is a one woman show for Bullock. She may have won an Oscar for “The Blind Side,” but this is by far the best performance of her career. At first, her guilt-ridden Ryan Stone is perfectly at home in the silence of space, not ready to die but unable to truly live. While her situation becomes more and more dire, Bullock opens up in a way she never has before. The harder Stone fights to survive, the more Bullock reveals about her inner turmoil. It’s heartbreaking and sure to get her another Oscar nomination.

Director Alfonso Cuaron, who helmed “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” along with the excellent Clive Owen starrer “Children of Men,” has vaulted himself into the upper eschelon of directors with “Gravity,” at least for anyone who didn’t already hold him in such high regard. Experiencing the suspense in this film must have been a lot like audiences in the ’50s and ’60s did watching an Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s a white-knuckle thrill ride that grabs you by the throat 15 minutes in and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.

Filmed in 3D, “Gravity” is one of the rare instances where a film should be viewed in that format. The added depth makes Bullock and Clooney’s situation even more harrowing, and space even more empty. It may not win a ton of Oscars, but it will receive plenty of nominations. “Gravity” is a well-crafted, superb, thrilling technological achievement that will be remembered and revered for years to come as one of the best science fiction films ever made.